How She Leads: Leisha John of Ernst & Young

How She Leads is a regular feature on GreenBiz.com that spotlights the career paths of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business. In this edition, Maya Albanese interviews Leisha John, Americas director of environmental sustainability at Ernst & Young, who is responsible for developing and implementing strategies to reduce Ernst & Young's impact on the environment.

With 152,000 people around the world, Ernst & Young is one of the world’s largest professional services organizations, and a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services.

The firm has no shortage of programs that support the advancement of sustainability initiatives. To start, the Climate Change & Sustainability Services branch helps companies develop comprehensive climate change strategies to reduce impact and consumption, thereby saving money and managing risk.

The firm also regularly publishes studies on the progress and nature of sustainable business, such as the recent "Six Growing Trends on Corporate Sustainability" conducted in collaboration with GreenBiz Group.

This week EY released their latest report, "Working Together" (PDF), which details how companies can reap the benefits of environmental incentives with help from tax experts.

In today’s interview, John shares the story of her professional journey to a role in environmental sustainability. She also talks with Albanese about the important connection between financial and tax services and sustainable business development.

Maya Albanese: To start, it would be interesting to hear more about how you merged a tax services career with the sustainability role that you have now.

Leisha John: Typically, you may not think to find an accountant working in environmental sustainability, but I actually had the perfect foundation to move into this role. I’ve been working with Ernst & Young LLP for 25 years, which has allowed me to work in many areas of the company, such as process re-engineering, program management, strategy and innovation. I had worked on many large-scale initiatives that involved change management factors in my previous roles. Given my business experience and knowledge of the company, I knew the moment I saw this job that I wanted to apply for it. 

We have a network of grassroots green teams called "EcoCare," and they have been building awareness of green initiatives across our 80 offices in the United States since 2002. They put forward the business case to have this national CSO role created in the company in 2008. 

MA: Was there an "aha" moment for you when you decided it was time to move into environmental services?

LJ: It was a journey for me to get into this role, rather than a moment. Living a greener lifestyle has always been important to me, and one of the most important things for us as a firm is to be credible in the eyes of our clients and the public. We need to be as green or greener than the companies we are helping through our Climate Change & Sustainability Services practice.

MA: How many employees at EY have sustainability directly tied to their job titles and descriptions? 

LJ: As director of Americas environmental sustainability, I am responsible for 180 offices, and the lead contact in the U.S. for sustainability initiatives.  For internal greening initiatives, I have champions in several departments across the firm, such as real estate, procurement, facilities, meetings and event services, etc. These champions wear an additional sustainability hat as part of their role. They are important liaisons that I have into these various enterprise groups.

We also have an environmental manager and global corporate sustainability leader in our U.K. office. Then there is our Climate Change & Sustainability Services team with over 700 people fully immersed in providing sustainability services to our clients globally. They are really an extended team of mine. For example, they are helping measure and report our carbon footprint through CDP, LEED certify our New Jersey office and develop our sustainability report.